REKULAPELLI: No. 1 men’s soccer is headed toward an eighth national championship

A stingy defense and well-balanced offense have long been the Cavaliers’ keys to success

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If the Cavaliers are able to stick to their laurels in a conference that boasts seven teams in the top 25 and against an increasing pool of talented teams, a national championship is firmly within reach.  

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Between 2014 and 2019, much has changed in the realm of Virginia athletics. Men’s basketball went from winning their first ACC championship in almost five decades to winning a national championship. Football has turned from the doormat of the ACC to an ACC Coastal Division contender. However, for men’s soccer, the winning formula has stayed constant. 

Throughout its dominance of collegiate soccer, Virginia has relied on a strong defense combined with an offense with multiple players capable of both playmaking and scoring. 

This year, the Cavaliers (9-0-0, 3-0-0 ACC) are led defensively by senior captain and defensive midfielder Robin Afamefuna, freshman defender Andreas Ueland and junior defender Henry Kessler. The three defensive stalwarts have started all nine games for Virginia, with the latter two playing all 813 minutes and the former only missing four minutes all season. The trio have led the Cavaliers to eight shutouts in nine matches this season. 

In fact, junior goalkeeper Colin Shutler has only had to make an average of 2.22 saves per game, attesting to how impenetrable the Cavalier backline has been. Furthermore, Shutler has faced just 22 shots on goal this season, allowing only one goal in a 3-1 win against Duke. 

Looking at the historic 2014 season when the Cavaliers rebounded from a second-round ACC tournament loss and went on to win the program’s eighth national title, it is evident that numerous parallels exist between the defenses of the 2014 and 2019 squads.

In 2014, then-senior goalkeeper Calle Brown posted 3.43 saves per game, which was 130th out of 150 ranked goalkeepers, attesting to the defense’s ability to limit scoring chances for its opponents. Furthermore, Brown allowed 0.675 goals against average, which was 20th out of 150 goalkeepers.

However, Brown wasn’t the only stand-out in the 2014 Virginia defense. Then-freshman left-back Sheldon Sullivan played all 2174 minutes for the Cavaliers, while his older brother — then-senior right-back Kyler Sullivan — played all but 55 minutes for Virginia. The two were instrumental in helping Virginia secure 11 shutouts in 23 matches, two of which were the final two games of the NCAA tournament. 

Returning to the current Virginia squad, the Cavaliers have also shown an adept ability to spread the ball out on the attacking front. Eleven different players have scored for Virginia this season — five of whom have multiple goals. Furthermore, eight different players have at least one assist, putting an exclamation point on the attacking strength of the 2019 team. 

Sophomore forward Daryl Dike and junior midfielder Joe Bell have been especially excellent for Virginia, with both players posting multiple goals and assists on the season. Dike has two goals and four assists on the season, showing exceptional footwork inside the 18-yard box, while Bell has been a force in the midfield, picking apart opposing defenses with precision passing. 

The 2014 squad similarly boasted a balanced offense, as 12 different Cavaliers scored throughout the season, six of whom had two or more goals. Like Bell, then-junior midfielder Scott Thomsen served as the spark for the Virginia attack throughout its championship run with eight assists during the season.

Overall, in both the 2014 and 2019 seasons, the Cavaliers have combined an efficient and proportional offense with a brick-wall defense in order to win a championship, and in the case of this season, win nine straight matches.

Over his last 24 seasons as head coach, George Gelnovatch has developed a fool-proof formula that has resulted in four ACC championships and two national championships. This year, his dynamic combination of Bell and Dike on the attacking front, as well as Ueland, Kessler, Afamefuna and Shutler on defense has proven to be an integral core of a true contender.

As such, if Gelnovatch and the Cavaliers are able to stick to their laurels in a conference that boasts seven teams in the top 25 and against an increasing pool of talented teams, a national championship is firmly within reach.  

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